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Asian-Australians in the Asian Century

2019 Asian Australian Foundation Oration, Melbourne, 19 June 2019

Thank you for the honour and privilege of being invited to deliver this 2019 Australian Asian Foundation Oration. I have been deeply impressed by everything I have learned about the activities of the Foundation, under Cheri Ong’s inspiring leadership, since its establishment in 2015: the way in which you have been encouraging and developing a culture of giving, and supporting not only education and the arts but the vulnerable and distressed in both the Asian-Australian and wider community, and doing so through scholarships and support for mental health, anti-bullying and anti-family violence programs. It’s an impressive achievement, and I congratulate you warmly on it.

When the Gillard Government’s much anticipated White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century was published in 2012 it comprehensively described the scale of Australia’s growing enmeshment in our region, giving real substance to the line that I have long been repeating – for more decades than I care to remember – that Australia’s future would be determined by our Asian geography, not by our Euro-Atlantic history. The report included a mass of statistics, projections, and analyses of Asia’s future growth and the opportunities this would provide for Australian business, together with two long chapters – over 20 pages each – on how to intensify our engagement through ‘Building Capabilities’ and ‘Deeper and Broader Relationships’.

Bur in all its more than 300 pages of analysis and recommendations, I could find in the White Paper barely a mention even of the existence of Asian-Australians in our community, and just four sentences referring to the contributions they might make – through their contacts and cultural awareness – to Australia-Asia relations.

This is as classic an illustration as one could ask for of the problem with which you will be acutely familiar, which needs far more attention than has been getting from policymakers, and which I want to address this evening: the under-appreciation and underutilisation of Asian-Australians as a hugely valuable human resource for this country, not least as we face both the challenges and opportunities of the Asian century. Policymakers, and those who influence them in the media and elsewhere, just do not yet seem to have got into their heads either the sheer scale now of the Asian presence in our population mix, or the nature and extent of the distinctive contributions that Asian-Australians can make to our national development.

In the hope that it might help to concentrate their minds, and at the same time get Asian-Australians themselves focusing more about what they can do to redress the situation, I will in this talk try to answer four basic questions. Just what is the scale of the national resource that Asian-Australians constitute? To what extent is that resource being underutilised? What are the obstacles to its more effective utilisation? And what can be done to overcome those obstacles?

Asian-Australians as a National Resource. As to the number of Asian-Australians in our midst, we may not yet quite be a Eurasian country, as George Megalogenis likes to describe us[1], but we are on our way. It is now the case that 28 per cent of our people were born overseas, and another 20 per cent have at least one overseas-born parent. We have more overseas-born than Canada with its 22 per cent, and double the percentage in the United States – with an ever-increasing proportion of them coming from Asia, more now in fact than from Europe.

Although it is not easy to extract precise data on the ethnic or cultural composition of our whole population, the best current estimates – in recent reports from both the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and PwC/Asialink, based on the Census data we do have from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on place of birth, languages spoken at home and self-identified ancestry[2] – are that Asian-Australians now constitute 12 per cent of our people. That is within a larger cohort of 21 per cent Non-Europeans: those of Anglo-Celtic background make up 58 per cent, other European background 18 per cent, and Indigenous Australians 3 per cent.

I have never been in any doubt personally about the nature and extent of the contribution that Australians of non-European heritage can make to this country, culturally, economically, and in the conduct of our external relations. In my first published article nearly fifty years ago – rather adventurously titled ‘The Browning of Australia’ – I argued passionately for our multicultural society to evolve to the stage where the mainstream national skin colour was no longer pinky-white. And when I became a Cabinet minister in the Australian government, particularly as Foreign Minister, I spent a lot of time talking about how multiculturalism served our national interest in the most hard-headed of ways. For example, I said in a speech in 1995:[3]

Multiculturalism has given us not just a new outlook on the world, but new resources and capacity, a whole new human skill-base, with which to deal with it. Our migrant communities - and the language teaching they have helped stimulate, especially Asian languages - have created a massive new pool from which we can draw for professional expertise.

Not just in traditional diplomacy, but in all our international economic relations. We are recognising that ethnic diversity is a major economic asset, one that we can and should be exploiting to the full. As Prime Minister Keating has said: ‘In a world where every competitive advantage must be fully exploited, productive diversity – utilising Australia's linguistic and cultural diversity to economic benefit – offers a practical resource which no organisation, including government, can afford to ignore’.

Just one current statistic makes the point. We constantly agonise about the insufficiency of Asian-language teaching and learning in our schools and universities, but do so without recognizing – and I found this this omission extraordinary in the White Paper – that we already have right in our midst a massive pool of native Asian-language speakers. There are more than 900,000 fluent now in Chinese dialects alone, and a million more speaking other Asian languages. And a great many of them are highly trained professionals, from whom we can draw all the linguistically-skilled and culturally sensitive talent we need.

While of course it is important for Australians of non-Asian origin to learn Chinese and other Asian languages at school or university – if for no other reason than the wider cultural exposure and understanding that comes with any decent language teaching – we should not be overly anxious at the paucity of really fluent speakers those programs are now producing. We have all the capacity we need in front of our eyes.

Underutilising the Resource. At the institutional leadership level there are some areas of our national life where the penny does seem to have dropped. I am glad to say that one of them is recruitment to, and promotion within, my old stamping ground, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Not only have we recently had, in Peter Varghese, a very distinguished Indian-Australian as head of the Department, but there are now a whole series of heads of mission and others in senior positions who don't begin to conform to the Anglo-European norm: ambassadors and high commissioners and consuls general like James Choi in Korea, Harinder Sidhu in India, Gita Kamath in South Africa, Ridwaan Jadwat in Saudi Arabia and Christopher Lim in Chengdu. The story this tells abroad about Australia’s national identity would of course have been even more brilliantly told had our Australian-Malaysian Chinese Senator Penny Wong become our new Australian foreign minister, but unhappily that is not now to be – at least for the next three years.

But – while the leadership of our professional diplomatic relations is a good news story, the story is nothing like as good when it comes to the number and proportion of Asian-Australians in leadership positions elsewhere in government and the wider community. The evidence does seem undeniable – as I argued in my Asialink speech in Sydney in March this year, which does seem to have struck a nerve or two – that we do have a ‘bamboo ceiling’ in this country, just as pervasive but not generating anything like the remedial attention that, properly, the long-recognised ‘glass ceiling’ experienced by women has now long been getting.

In our nation’s parliaments, it is beyond argument that our marvellously diverse electorates, becoming ever more so, would be more sensitively and effectively served by having many more parliamentarians of much more diverse backgrounds. That’s been happening for years with non-Anglo-Celtic Europeans, but there still are no more than four Asian-Australians in any State parliament,[4] and at the national level – despite the wonderful spectacle of two Chinese-Australians, the Coalition’s Gladys Liu and Labor’s Jennifer Yang, battling it out for the seat of Chisholm – the recent election, with Indian-Australians Dave Sharma’s arrival and Lisa Singh’s departure cancelling each other out, did little to improve the record.[5]

The legal profession is another clear example. Given the centrality of the rule of law and of a manifestly independent and unbiased judiciary to the kind of country that we are, who could believe that our long term national interests in community cohesion and confidence is being best preserved by a judiciary and magistracy in which at all levels, in the last figures I can find, for 2015, there were among 1,057 office holders nationwide just 8 Asian-Australians?[6] Things may be beginning to move: two barristers of Chinese descent – William Lye and Cam Truong – were made Queen’s Counsel in Victoria last December. But as I said in my recent Asialink speech, that they were the first in 200 years to be so recognised does not suggest that the time is exactly ripe for an orgy of self-congratulation.

Things on the face of it seem better in the medical profession, where there are far more prominent and respected senior practitioners of Asian heritage. But insiders tell me that, given their numbers, there are many fewer Asian-Australians in hospital, research institute and other institutional leadership positions than one might expect.

Overall, the best statistical, as distinct from anecdotal, evidence we have of the under-representation of Asian-Australians in leadership positions comes from the AHRC Cultural Diversity Leadership Blueprint, updated in April 2018. Examining first the cultural backgrounds of chief executive officers of ASX200 companies, federal government ministers, heads of federal and state government departments and vice-chancellors of universities, the Commission found that just 1.6 per cent of them were Asian-Australians.

And even when the enquiry was broadened out to cover leadership positions one level below this – group executives of ASX companies, elected members of the Commonwealth Parliament, deputy heads of government departments and deputy vice-chancellors – the proportion of Asian-Australians is just 3.3 per cent. Which is a long way below the 12 per cent that their numbers in the broader community would suggest should be the norm. Only Indigenous Australians fare worse, occupying just 0.4 per cent of senior leadership positions against their share of the total population of 3 per cent.[7]

Moving beyond just the senior leadership level, there is reason to believe that in the Australian workforce at large we are still also under-appreciating and underutilising Asian-Australians, although here the evidence is more impressionistic and anecdotal. The 2014 Diversity Council of Australia report, Cracking the Cultural Ceiling, found that only 17 per cent of those surveyed strongly agreed that their organisation used their Asia capabilities very well; only one in five were very satisfied with career progress and opportunities; and only 22 per cent strongly agreed that they have worked in organisations that value cultural diversity. Fully 30 per cent said they were likely to leave their employer in the next year.

And all this in an environment where the 2012 White Paper, and everyone else, agrees that we dramatically need to lift our ‘Asian capability’ – defined by the Diversity Council of Australia as meaning ‘individuals’ ability to interact effectively in Asian countries and cultures, and with people from Asian cultural backgrounds, to achieve work goals.’ Although seven out of Australia’s top ten export markets are in Asia, and constitute 66 per cent of our total export market – and although more than 50 per cent of the world’s population lives in Asia, with a consumer demand potential to match – our Asian capability is much lower than it should be.

In its 2015 report[8], the Diversity Council estimates that while one in ten of all Australian workers have excellent Asia capability, one third have none or very little. Close to two-thirds of workers have no, or very little, working knowledge of how to effectively manage in Asian business contexts. The obvious groups on which to focus in further building that capability are Australian workers who have an Asian cultural identity, those who can read, write and/or speak an Asian language to at least basic proficiency level, and those who have lived and worked in Asia – in other words, overwhelmingly, members of the Asian-Australian community.

Obstacles to Better Utilisation. There are a number of possible explanations for the underrepresentation in leadership positions, and general underutilisation, of Asian-Australians that I have been describing.

Racial Prejudice? One is that there is still a significant amount of outright racial discrimination. For senior leadership appointments I very much doubt that this is now as true for Asian-Australians as it might have been once, but it may still be a factor at lower levels. ANU economists did a field experiment in 2010, in which they sent out more than 4000 fake applications for entry-level jobs, using the same qualifications but different ethnically-distinct names, and found substantial discrimination by employers in their hiring,. In order to get as many interviews as an applicant with an Anglo-Saxon name, someone with a Middle Eastern name had to submit 64 per cent more applications, and with a Chinese name 68 per cent more.[9] I hope things have improved over the nearly a decade since that survey, but we can’t exclude that possibility that prejudice is still in play.

Stereotyping? A second answer, I suspect most relevant at the leadership level, is that there may still be a great deal of instinctive stereotyping about the qualities that Asian-Australians bring to these roles. Peter Cai suggested in a piece in the Business Spectator in 2014 that ‘People see Asian deference to elders as a sign of their unwillingness to challenge authority and hence their lack of leadership potential.’[10] Former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane has made the same point: ‘What one person may regard as the laudable qualities of being inoffensive, diligent and productive can, for another person, sound a lot like passivity, acquiescence and subservience’.

The 2014 Diversity Council of Australia report on Cracking the Cultural Ceiling that I have already referred to found that only 18 per cent of Asian talent felt their workplaces were free of cultural diversity biases and stereotypes. Many regularly experienced bias and stereotyping, including about their cultural identity, leadership capability, English proficiency, and age, with women from Asian backgrounds experiencing a ‘double disadvantage’.

Cultural Inhibition? A third possible answer is that there may actually be an element of cultural inhibition, particularly in Confucian cultures, which does make it more psychologically difficult for many Asian-Australians to actively pursue and achieve more senior roles. The point is made by the Asian-American Jane Hyun in her seminal book on Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. In highly individualistic societies, she says, those who speak or shout the loudest get noticed the most or rewarded: ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease’. Yet, within Asian cultures, a different norm may prevail: ‘The loudest duck gets shot.’ Individuals of course vary enormously, but I have had many conversations over the years with Asian-Australians who have described how instinctively inhibited they have felt about asserting themselves to the extent that might be seen to be the Anglo-Celtic cultural norm, and how they feel this has held them back.

Fear? A fourth answer relates specifically to Chinese-Australians, and is a distressing new element on the scene. It is the sense that in the current environment of hyper-anxiety in some quarters about baleful Chinese, and particularly Chinese Communist Party, influence in Australian business, politics and universities, Chinese-Australians are going to find it even more difficult than they do at the moment to aspire to leadership positions, or indeed any positions at all in fields that are seen as even remotely security sensitive.

My own Executive Officer, and Manager of the ANU’s Melbourne office, Jieh-Yung Lo, has written movingly of what he describes as ‘ a new form of Sinophobia’ emerging, more subtle than the outright racism and xenophobia experienced by Chinese-Australians and migrants in the days of White Australia, but equally destructive in the way it undermines confidence and trust.[11] As he has recently put it:

Chinese Australians are eager to participate in the public discussion and respond to issues surrounding foreign influence and interference, but when the overall framing of the debate targets China specifically, they are placed in a difficult position and are often subjected to demonization and discrimination when their loyalty and commitment to Australia are questioned, singled out, and put on display—especially if they choose not to criticize China publicly or happen to personally agree with China’s position. While it is important to ensure China does not unlawfully interfere in Australia’s institutions and domestic affairs, it is equally important to ensure the views and positions of Chinese Australians are respected. The challenge for Chinese Australians is simultaneously managing an increasingly paranoid Australia and an unapologetically assertive China.[12]

Bandwidth? A fifth and final factor contributing to the under-representation of Asian-Australians in leadership positions and underutilisation more generally may simply be one of bandwidth: the belief, well-founded or not, in businesses, professional partnerships and public institutions that they don't have the time, energy or resources necessary to address the issue. Cultural diversity seems to be twenty years or more behind gender diversity as an issue that business and other institutional leaders seem prepared to address. A Vietnamese-Australian lawyer Tuanh Nguyen, makes the point in a recent SBS publication: ‘I worked at the law firm Baker and McKenzie for ten years. When I first started talking about cultural diversity issues, they said there’s only so much oxygen for diversity, and it is all being taken up by gender’.[13]

Overcoming the Obstacles. So what can we do about overcoming the obstacles I have described to under-representation and underutilisation – both by Asian-Australians themselves and by mainstream policymakers and decision-makers? I have made some of these points before, in my Asialink speech in Sydney in March, but they are going to have to be made many more times – particularly by Asian-Australians and their community organisations themselves – if they are to be taken up by policymakers in the way they need to be.

The first need is to better understand the scale of the problem, which means better and more accessible data on the ethnic and cultural composition of our population as a whole – which at the moment has to be painfully laboriously compiled from less than complete Census data – and of all our public companies and institutions. There are always understandable sensitivities about gathering information on race or ethnicity, but good policy at both the macro and micro level has to be evidence driven, and policymakers at both levels simply don’t have all the readily available data they need.

The second need is to use that data to set realistic targets and timelines, countrywide, sector by sector, institution by institution. Some consensus needs to be reached on the familiar debate about quotas, targets and tokenism which always flares up around any effort to redress apparent inequity in the context of gender, race, ethnicity or anything else. Given the very early stages of debate about cultural diversity, any talk of formal quotas would seem counterproductive, but carefully thought out targets can be operationally very useful.

Much will need to be done at the micro level, company by company and institution by institution, but it will be important at the macro-level that there be an accepted source of strategic guidance. The obvious candidate for such a role, given its excellent reporting on this subject so far, is the Australian Human Rights Commission, but its effectiveness in this space will significantly depend on the degree of cross party support that the whole bamboo ceiling-breakthrough enterprise commands.

A third need is to identify the kind of detailed strategies and programs that are going to be necessary to actually change mindsets and get any targets implemented. What will help organizational leaders recognise they simply have to find the bandwidth to address lack of cultural diversity: that not doing so is as unconscionable, and as big a lost opportunity, as not getting it about gender equity? Would the functional equivalent of Male Champions of Change add any value here? What kind of training programs could be introduced to help employers recognise their stereotyped perceptions for what they are, and help encourage Asian-Australians to overcome such diffidence they might have about doing what it takes to climb the leadership ladder? Couldn’t we do much more along the lines of the mentoring program for aspiring female company directors run by the Australian Institute of Company Directors?

I don’t have the answers now to all the questions I have raised and the challenges I have sought to identify. But I strongly believe it’s time for us as a nation to get moving on finding them, and a tremendously important vehicle for doing so will be the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit (AALS), to be held here in Melbourne, at the State Library of Victoria from12-13 September 2019, jointly co-convened by The Australian National University (ANU), PwC Australia and Asialink, with a wide group of additional supporters. The AAF, I am delighted to say, is a key stakeholder in this enterprise and has agreed to assist in recommending Summit participants from your networks.

We will be inviting to the Summit over fifty key Asian-Australians and an equivalent number of leading non-Asian-Australians from the business, government, academic, media and NGO communities, with a sharply-focused practical agenda aimed squarely at elevating on the public agenda the issue of greater Asian-Australian representation in senior leadership positions, and energizing efforts to break through the bamboo ceiling. The Summit will seek to raise public awareness of the issue, explore the challenges, and develop practical targets and strategies (including an attempt to draft a national framework supported by a group of ‘champions for change’) to substantially increase the number of Asian-Australians in senior leadership positions.

The Summit will be preceded, importantly, by a NextGen session designed for a broader audience, targeting Asian-Australian participants in the 18-35 age group. In parallel, the three Summit co-convenors, together with the search firm Johnson Partners, will run a young Asian-Australian leaders ‘40 under 40’ national awards initiative to highlight emerging talent.

This leads me to make the final point I want to emphasise. If we are to make the bamboo ceiling a thing of the past; if we are to overcome the stereotyping and other obstacles which are inhibiting our capacity as a nation to take maximum advantage, with the Asian century off and running, of the fantastic Asia-capable linguistic and cultural resource we have in our midst with our Asian-Australian community; and if we are to ensure that every Asian-Australian has the opportunity to completely realize and fulfil his or her personal growth and development potential -- it is critically important that we utilise to the full the extraordinary store of talent and energy we have in our midst in the form of the young Asian-Australian professionals who are so well represented in this audience tonight.

The future is not going to be determined by old greybeards like me. It’s going to be made by you, the young professionals. So please don't be hesitant and nervous but confident and optimistic that you can make a difference – at the micro-level in your own workplaces; through the energy and advocacy skills you can contribute to your community organizations; and in the voice you can have in the larger policy making process by speaking out and capturing the attention of policymakers and decision-makers.

I have long believed that Australians generally are overwhelmingly characterised by an inherent decency, humanity and tolerance which is not in the slightest racist or inherently hostile to those whose background is not Anglo-European. Yes, it is the case that, periodically, economic anxiety or security anxiety can translate in some quarters into cultural anxiety which can in turn result in some negativity towards those perceived to be outside the national mainstream.

But that said, the particular problems and sensitivities that can arise from time to time as a result of multiculturalism are hugely outweighed, for the overwhelming majority of Australians, by their understanding of the richness – culturally, economically and in every other way – that cultural diversity has brought to Australia. They know that multiculturalism has given us not just a new outlook on the world, but new resources and capacity, a whole new human skill-base, with which to deal with it.

And they know that for the future of Australia there is simply no more important a contributor to that human skill-base than our growing Asian-Australian community. Thank you for everything you have contributed in the past, and thank you for the wonderful contribution I am totally confident you are going to make to this new Eurasian country of ours in the future.

[1] George Megalogenis, ‘The Changing Face of Australia’, Australian Foreign Affairs, Issue 1 (Black Inc, October 2017).

[2] Australian Human Rights Commission, Leading for Change: A blueprint for cultural diversity and inclusive leadership revisited, April 2018; PwC and Asialink Business, Match Fit: Shaping Asia Capable Leaders, August 2017.

[3] Gareth Evans, ‘Multiculturalism and Australian Foreign Policy’, 10 March 1995.

[4] Per Capita, The Way In: Representation in the Australian Parliament, January 2019.

[5] SBS News, Australia’s new parliament is no more multicultural than the last one, 21 May 2019.

[6] Asian Australian Lawyers Association, The Australian Legal Profession: A Snapshot of Asian-Australian Diversity in 2015. April 2015.

[7] To complete the picture, other non-Europeans (from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere) with 7 per cent of the population occupy 1.7 per cent of leadership positions; Anglo-Celtics occupy 75.7 per cent of positions, over-representing by 17.7 per cent their share of the population, and other Europeans holding 18.9 of positions, very closely mirroring their population share of 18 per cent.

[8] Leading in the Asian Century: A National Scorecard of Australia’s Workforce Asia Capability (Diversity Council of Australia, 2015).

[9] A.Booth, A.Leigh and E.Varganova, ‘Does Racial and Ethnic Discrimination Vary Across Minority Groups: Evidence from a Field Experiment’, July 2010 CEPR Discussion Paper DP7913, cited in Tim Soutphommasane, ‘Unconscious Bias and the Bamboo Ceiling’, AHRC, 10 June 2014. Someone with an Italian name, by contrast, had to submit only 12 per cent more applications.

[10] Peter Cai, ‘Is there a bamboo ceiling in Australia’, Business Spectator, 14 June 2014.

[11] Jieh-Yung Lo, ‘As Canberra’s ties with Beijing come under pressure, Chinese-Australians are facing a new kind of discrimination’, South China Morning Post, 29 September 2018.

[12] Jieh-Yung Lo, ‘Chinese Australians Are Not a Fifth Column’, Foreign Policy, 31 May 2019.

[13] Quoted in Malcolm Knox, ‘Battle of the Bamboo Ceiling’, SBS, November 2016.